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Take it as read(dit): degrees of truth in the internet hivemind

Posted by Ben Musgrove on 25th June 2021

It’s conventional wisdom that Reddit — the cuddlier cousin of your favourite social media — is a hivemind. Surely a meritocratic, community-driven forum is going to have people reflexively rushing to confirm general opinion?

Well, sort of. Reddit’s saving grace and safety net is its network of subreddits — specialised communities with members numbering between the hundreds and the hundreds of millions. Join your cliques, and you gradually build a news feed of the things that you want to see.

When these things are connected to the real world, rather than fandoms or video games and the like, it’s possible to gauge popular interest in certain topics. Let’s take a relevant example: r/Futurology.

r/Futurology is a subreddit associated with technologies you’d only tend to hear about in sci-fi. Whether it’s the age of killer robots, viruses that attack tumour cells or using AI to “figure out wtf sperm whales are talking about”, there’s something here each for its 15,000,000 post-cyberpunk members. It’s usually one of those portions of the internet that scratches the same itch as ironically buying an iRobot t-shirt.

The last couple of months, however, have seen a shift away from the new-fangled and hifalutin, with members setting their sights firmly on the everyday man’s everyday: the working week.

The future of work (or not)

Over 120,000 members have weighed in on employees being ready to quit rather than to lose their working-from-home privileges. In the last 24 hours at the time of writing, another 90,000 have shown support for killing the five-day workweek. Another 60,000 endorse the notion that employers are gaining leverage before our eyes.

These aren’t left-field, left-wing sources from the dregs of Twitter. These conversations are seeded from global publications like Bloomberg, The Atlantic and the New York Times, and despite their apparent mundanity, they are now bleeding into a futurist community with three times as many members as the population of Ireland.

Simply put: according to r/Futurology, the future is coming — for your work routine, your office chairs, and your boss.

Cool, right?

Well, sort of. Reddit, despite its size and specialised communities, is not the yardstick by which truth is measured.

Land of the free (to work from home)

For one, it skews young, white and more than half-American. The lived experience of work patterns in Silicon Valley is not remotely representative of the freelancer in New York, let alone the 9–5 office worker in Farringdon. It’s just too big.

There’s also the risk of absorbing the echo chamber. Reddit is, to an extent, what you want it to be: if you want to subscribe to communities that are the antithesis of your views, and continually challenge yourself, you can do that. If you want your every whim to be confirmed, it can do that too. Socialist and Donald-Trump-stanning subreddits, for example, couldn’t co-exist otherwise.

So, we must be careful. We can’t take Reddit as read (ha!), but at the same time, our example is a specialised community taking welfare stories from some of the biggest publications in the world. Unless 15 million are being misled by these global names, they’re onto something — even if it’s only to later be disproven or shot down.

Talk the talk

What we therefore need to focus on is the debate rather than the conclusion. We don’t have to know the answer, not yet. We just need to recognise that it’s a conversation worth having.

We know this because the fate of your working-from-home lifestyle is being discussed by the biggest companies in the world. Whether it’s that a survey of 1,000 US adults showed that 39% would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work, or the CEO of Goldman Sachs declaring flexible work “an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible,” we know that huge companies are waging a marketing war for their preference.

Because of that, people are feeling empowered to have the same conversations. With the pandemic still enforcing working-from-home rules, people are being given the space, time and experience to work out an informed position on the debate. The prominence of working from home on the news agenda is indicative of there being reasonable arguments on both side of the office–remote divide.

All of this points to Reddit as a news aggregator, a temperature gauge, and a valuable window into the public opinion — but not a single source of truth. You can’t analyse the hivemind without ignoring the buzz.

Ben Musgrove

Bringing a can-do attitude and an exceptional work ethic to any project, Ben joined the Wildfire team in 2017 as an intern, following a role as a business operations executive with the award-winning tech startup Housekeep. Ben has a literary brain, having gained an MA in Literature & Culture from the University of Birmingham. When his nose isn’t buried in a book he can be found heckling officials from the terraces of Woking FC and trying not to upset the neighbours too much with his electric guitar.